Emily Barley: Child sexual exploitation is not just part of Rotherham’s past

6 Jan

Cllr Emily Barley is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Rotherham Council. She is a councillor for Hoober Ward.

In May 2021, after I was elected leader of a brand new group of Conservative Councillors in Rotherham, one of the first things I did was set up a small working group to assess the current situation regarding child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the Borough.

What we found was extremely worrying. In just a few short months, we discovered multiple examples of active grooming and other activities that indicated children are still being abused by organised gangs. Multiple members of the public talked about having seen suspicious things in a few key locations, and a picture emerged of Asian men buying children ice creams and mobile phones, and children getting into strangers’ cars at night in what looked like a network of pick-up locations. Through casework, we came across instances of children who were at risk, and possibly already being abused.

In each case, we reported everything we heard and found to South Yorkshire Police, and to Rotherham Council.

What happened next made the situation move from extremely worrying, to dire. In response to our reports, nothing happened. When we did get an acknowledgement of the information we had submitted, the tone of emails was hostile and the implication seemed to be that the authorities didn’t want to know. In the case of one at-risk child, it took three months of chasing around various people and departments at the council for anything to be done.

We went on to speak with survivors of historic child sexual exploitation, and then to professionals who support recent, and in some cases very young, survivors. When we heard stories from the past, then compared them to what we had seen and what recent survivors said in their statements, I was sickened.

By November, I felt it was time to go public with what we had found. Too many times in the past people in Rotherham have been pressured into remaining silent, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again.

I published a report summarising our findings, giving as much detail as I felt was safe to avoid identifying victims and damaging future police investigations.

The response from the public was dramatic and immediate: we received a flood of further information on suspicious activities and possible pick-up locations, some confirming what we had already heard from others, and some completely new. People shared stories of things they had seen, how they had likewise reported things to the police and been ignored, and more survivors came forward to tell us how they too had been failed by Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police.

The response from the authorities was different. We were accused of playing politics with the issue, supplying poor intelligence with the implication that we had wasted police time, and of not knowing what we were talking about. Chris Read, the Labour Leader of Rotherham Council, and Dr Alan Billings, the Labour South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, were both keen to say that they took child sexual exploitation seriously. They both were also anxious to say that grooming in Rotherham has changed, and it is now mostly done by white men, online.

In the Full Council meeting where we presented a motion calling for action on child sexual exploitation, Labour councillors took turns to deride our work, accuse us of ill-intent, and say that I personally had damaged confidence in the police. Again, we heard the claim that everyone in Rotherham takes child sexual exploitation seriously, but nevertheless we were wrong. Then, en-masse, the Labour group voted to amend our motion, taking out its teeth and deleting a passage that said: “While RMBC has performed well in Ofsted and other inspections, what matters is not that inspections are passed, but that children are protected from some of the most horrific crimes imaginable.”

To know the history of Rotherham – of dismissals and denials – and watch it happening again, was devastating.

Just a few weeks later, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) published a report highlighting a number of continuing failings at South Yorkshire Police, including, among other things, the under-recording of crime against vulnerable children, the need for more training for specialist police officers, and failure to regularly update victims on their cases. The IOPC report quoted an expert who works with victims as saying that while things had improved in 2015-16, they had deteriorated since then.

The IOPC, not especially well-known for being critical of the police, said that they were “worried that despite multiple reports and recommendations, there are still areas of concern”.

Then, last week, The Times published details from South Yorkshire Police’s own internal report stating that in 67% of child sexual exploitation cases in Rotherham, the ethnicity of suspects is not recorded. The police report also said that Rotherham remains a hotspot for child sexual exploitation, and that fewer cases were being recorded possibly due to ‘competing demands’ to investigate other kinds of crime.

I know that the failings at South Yorkshire Police and Rotherham Council to tackle child sexual exploitation go much further than the limited scope of these two reports suggest.

Still, today, frontline police officers and council staff are not adequately trained to recognise when a child is being groomed and possibly sexually exploited – instead, abused children are often still treated as troublemakers. We have heard from council staff who are terrified of losing their jobs if they speak out about what is going wrong – they have been told by their managers not to talk about child sexual exploitation.

Proactive work to identify possible victims and perpetrators is practically non-existent here, and South Yorkshire Police only prosecute in 1 in 34 child sexual exploitation cases, one of the worst rates in the country.

It’s simply not good enough. These poor attitudes and constant failings are not good enough anywhere, but they’re especially not good enough in Rotherham. Children are being groomed, raped, and trafficked, because the authorities in Rotherham are still not doing their jobs properly.

I and my team are going to keep working to change that.

Emily Barley: We achieved a breathrough in Rotherham by being unembarrassed about our strong Conservative values

28 May

Cllr Emily Barley is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Rotherham Council. She is a councillor for Hoober Ward.

In the latest round of local elections here in Rotherham, we made the leap from zero to 20 seats, massively out-performing the national trend, dramatically slashing Labour’s majority, and becoming the official opposition at Rotherham Council.

In my second election in as many weeks, I am honoured that my colleagues put their trust in me and elected me Leader of the new Conservative Group as we get settled in and begin serving our communities as Councillors.

Our success in Rotherham was a surprise – or even a shock – to many, and I’ve spent lots of time fielding almost daily questions from journalists for whom the election of any Conservative Councillors, never mind 20, was outside of all expectations.

But the truth is that it is what we had been hoping and working for. As Deputy Chairman Political and de-facto campaign manager, 18 months ago I sat down and made a list of areas I judged we were strong in and had potential to win – and that list is satisfyingly similar the list of wards Conservatives were elected in this time around.

In our campaign we went back to basics, with only a tiny bit of social media and a sprinkling of leaflets in some areas; the bulk of our efforts focused on good old-fashioned door-knocking. When Covid restrictions were eased to allow door to door campaigning, our team stepped up beautifully and knocked on around 15,000 doors in target wards in just eight weeks.

This approach drew on tried and tested campaigning methods – identifying Conservatives and then getting them out to vote – but had extra value here in Rotherham. Because while, yes, we were talking to people and spreading our message, much more importantly we were listening to what they had to say.

I’m a real believer that this is something we all must do at every election and between elections, in every part of the country. But it’s doubly important here where people have felt ignored and taken for granted by Labour for so many years, and there’s more than a sneaking suspicion that politicians may not be all that interested in them, their lives, and their problems.

What we learned on the rainy, sunny, and sometimes snowy doorsteps across Rotherham busts the narrative that what people in these former Labour heartlands want from local and national government is some kind of Labour-lite programme that spends lots of money, no matter the consequences for taxes and the national debt.

Instead, people were telling us their belief in the need for proper financial management and good value for money, and their frustration with being forced to hand over more of their hard-earned cash every year as Council Tax is put up.

Running through the hearts of these proud working class communities is a sense of self-reliance, independence of thought, and confidence in themselves and the country they love. There’s a belief that work should pay, people and governments shouldn’t spend more money than they have, and no one should tell adults how to live their lives.

Individual choice and responsibility, good financial management, and unembarrassed patriotism, were the things that drew me to the Conservative Party 15 years ago as a teenager in an ex-mining town, and those same values are appealing to new streams of Conservative voters in similar places today.

I fear that the importance and power of these Conservative values may have gotten lost in the scramble to get Brexit done, the crisis around coronavirus, and the desire to show people that voting blue pays. It is now critical that Conservatives get out there and listen to what people have to say, rather than relying on the interpretation of the media and focus groups, or else we risk moving away from people just as they come towards us.

For our part, the new Conservative Group on Rotherham Council will be continuing with the theme of getting back to basics – just like on the campaign trail, no tricks and no short cuts; just a solid commitment to working hard, listening, and advancing our shared values.

We’ll be putting in the effort to go through Council spending and contracts, line by line, to find waste and get the best possible value for money, figuring out why services fail so often – leading to dirt, disrepair, and people feeling let down – and setting about fixing them – and always, always, ensuring we listen and act on the things people tell us they want to see change.

Richard Holden: Knightmare on Starmer Street. Labour loses control of Durham – held by the party for a century.

10 May

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Louisa Centre, Stanley, County Durham

At the count in Stanley at 3am on Friday morning after the verification checks on the ballot papers, I realised that I was witnessing the latest stage of the fundamental shift in British politics.

The communities that are not merely the heartlands but the birthplace of the Labour Party are decisively turning their backs on the party which turned its backs on them.

Two weeks ago in this column, I wrote about Keir Starmer and Labour’s five tests from this set of elections in the North East of England. To be fair to the Labour leader, these results cannot all be laid at his door – they have a much longer-term gestation.

However, the man who many thought would be Labour’s knight in shining armour has delivered results even worse than the outlier, “knightmare” scenarios that I suggested a fortnight ago.

Not only did the Conservatives remain the largest party in Northumberland, but they took overall control and, in doing so, took Hartley ward – and kicked out the Labour group leader on Northumberland County Council.

Sir Keir didn’t just fail my Stockton South test (remember: Stockton South was won by Corbyn’s Labour in the 2017 general election), but the excellent campaigning of Stockton South’s MP, Matt Vickers, with together with Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, saw the Conservatives not just retain the Stockton South council seats that they’d held, but take all the seats that were up for election, including from Liberal Dems and independents.

Paul Williams, the former Labour MP for Stockton South, handpicked and put on a shortlist of one by Labour HQ, delivered a catstrophic result for Labour in Hartlepool. To lose the seat at this stage in the electoral cycle by that much would have previously been thought impossible, but it’s happened.

With the Conservatives gaining over 50 per cent of the vote in the by-election, and Labour finishing a poor second, it’s clear that, in terms of parliamentary seats, CCHQ now needs to be targeting the North East of England much more broadly for the next election, including such seats as: City of Durham, North Durham, all the Sunderland seats, Blaydon – and even perhaps Gateshead and Easington.

Houchen’s utterly overwhelming victory in the Tees Valley, gaining almost three quarters of the votes on the first round, is the strongest symbol of continued Conservative advance in the North of England. The Conservative gain of the Police Commissioner post in Cleveland is further proof of this. Particularly when the vote from Middlesbrough, widely believed still to be rock solid for Labour in Teesside, came out five to three in the Conservative’s favour.

To outsiders, the loss of Durham County Council by Labour to No Overall Control may not seem quite as totemic as some of the other results. But if anything it’s more so.

The Conservatives increased their number of seats by 14, taking them from the fifth largest group (there are two independent groups) to the position of second largest party behind Labour – in one fell swoop.

Durham is where the Labour Party first gained a county council in 1919 and they have held it ever since. The results overall for the Conservatives are really, really good – particularly in my constituency in North West Durham and in my good friend Dehenna Davison’s constituency in Bishop Auckland.

Scratch the surface, and the results are more impressive still. In North West Durham, we’re now second almost everywhere we didn’t win, from what were often poor third places just four years ago. The increasing vote and vote share was at least 100 per cent, and in some cases, such as in Consett North and in Consett South, the number of Conservative votes went up almost four times.

Even in Weardale, where Conservatives were challenging two long-established independent councillors, we jumped from third place to second place, and came within 85 votes of taking one of them out.

In Woodhouse Grove, in the Bishop Auckland constituency, Conservatives gained two new councillors, and only missed out by nine votes in the working class town of Willington in North West Durham. It’s quite clear that, from this incredible baseline, Conservatives can now make further progress both locally and at the next general election.

These campaigns really came down to incredibly hard graft on the ground. It’s clear that CCHQ needs to look at how we can really capitalise on this with extra resources in the coming months and years.

The results in the North East are not unique. To see Rotherham go from zero to 20 Conservative councillors is mindblowing, as are the exceptional gains in Hyndburn in Lancashire, where the Conservatives held the county council with an increased majority.

But this succes is not just in the North. The gains in Harlow, Dudley, Southampton and elsewhere by the Conservatives show an incredible national picture.

While these results are absolutely stunning, often with significantly increased turnouts, it’s clear that the future of these areas as key battlegrounds will require the promises made by the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party to deliver on levelling up to not only be delivered on in the long-term, but also to show that progress is being made within the next year-to-18 months too.

In some areas of the country, the Conservatives haven’t performed quite as well. Downing Street and CCHQ need to find out why this has ocurred, and learn the lessons not only from the great successes, but also from the places where we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

What’s clear from politics is that nothing ever stays the same. Who’d have thought that the narrow victory in the Teeside matoralty in 2017 following Brexit would have not only been the catalyst for a shift in voting, but a shift in poltical culture in the North East? People are no longer willing to accept either MPs or local authority leaders who see their position as a sinicure. Delivery is what counts.

We Conservatives are in government, and have the abilty to really make that happen. If we do so, our political prospects in these areas will just get better and better.

Emily Barley: For voters in Rotherham, the “take back control” message means control of their own lives

30 Apr

Emily Barley is the Deputy Chairman Political of Rotherham Conservative Federation and was the Conservative Party candidate for Wentworth and Dearne at the 2019 General Election.

On Thursday next week, voters go to the polls across England in a series of local elections. Though important everywhere, the Conservative Party will undoubtedly have its eye on the areas that make up the crumbling red wall, watching carefully to see if the new Conservative voters who switched in 2019 have stuck with us.

Rotherham, where I am one of three Conservative candidates in Hoober Ward, is one such place. After decades of Labour rule, and the area becoming world-famous for all the wrong reasons, Conservatives are seriously challenging this time. Our team of candidates is strong, local to their wards, and, since restrictions were lifted to allow canvassing, has been out and about knocking on doors and talking to residents.

Thousands of conversations in the last few weeks have shown that the Conservative vote is holding up well since the General Election, where we won one constituency, Rother Valley, and slashed the Labour majorities in the other two that make up the borough. Even more positively, we have been finding brand new switchers – people whose loyalty to Labour was seriously tested during the Corbyn years and then broken completely by the election of out-of-touch Starmer as the Leader.

They tell us that the party they supported for decades is lost to them and that while the Conservative Party has not yet won their loyalty, they feel closer to us than anyone else and will be voting Conservative in May.

So far, so good.

But I fear we have a developing problem: what I’m hearing on the doorstep about what people want from their Government does not appear to match what the Government believes they want.

In many ways, the easy part was Brexit. 67.9 per cent of people living in the Rotherham area voted to leave the EU, giving a clear instruction to Westminster. But though Brexit has been delivered, the story has not yet concluded, and that’s because the ‘take back control’ message meant more to people here than simply getting out of the EU.

For them, the vote to leave the EU was an expression of confidence in the UK’s ability to succeed in the world as an independent nation, and it was a vote for a different kind of government, more in touch and with smarter policy decisions to fit Britain. Most importantly, the way they feel about Britain’s right and ability to be independent is also how they feel about themselves.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that folks up here simply don’t like being told what to do, how to think, and how to enjoy their lives.

One area where the government is totally disconnected from what their new voters want is the nanny state. I live and campaign in a part of the world where people value their right, as adults, to choose for themselves on junk food, smoking, and drinking.

And so I’m worried that we’re set to repeat the mistakes of the Labour Party: who thought voters in these areas were simple to understand, easy to win over, and not smart enough to decide for themselves.

Covid-19 has changed a lot of things, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the way people in Rotherham have accepted the at-times authoritarian intrusion in their lives means that they are now more open to being told what to do, but that is not the case. As reasonable, level-headed Yorkshire-men and -women, they understand what a crisis is, and they have made an exception that will shortly run out.

As the crisis fades, there is an opportunity to move forward in a different way, showing that Conservatives understand and respect people’s desire to take back control. A shift in focus is needed – far far away from telling people what to do and lecturing them on the consequences of their actions in the way Boris and his government have grown all too comfortable with. Instead, we should be giving people information, showing them alternatives and their benefits, making it easier to make healthier choices, and leaving the decisions to them.

This means dropping any suggestion of bullying tactics like junk food taxes or minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and it means building on the helpful encouraging tone of the NHS Better Health programme.

There’s an opportunity too, to move away from the EU’s outdated approach to e-cigarettes, reforming volumes and strengths, and looking at how best to embrace new technologies.

Breaking from the EU on this would be yet another benefit of Brexit, and would go down particularly well in Rotherham, where smoking rates are higher than the national average and people are heartily fed up with being told off about their habit.

As things stand right now, the Conservative Party’s relationship with new Conservative voters is more precarious than it seems. The polls look good as we enjoy the protection of people’s goodwill, but if we repeat the disrespect of the Labour Party by telling them how they should live their lives and failing to recognise the full implications of their wish to take back control, we run the risk of pushing them away. A new approach to public health, rooted in treating people as the adults they are, is required.

Some key contests will show if the “red wall” has been truly demolished

26 Mar

Those who have been carefully studying the earlier instalments of local election analysis, will have noted that Labour will find it easier to make gains on seats last contested in 2017 (when they did very badly) than those where the previous elections were in 2016 (when Labour and the Conservatives were broadly neck and neck.) The county council elections come under the first category. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections, and those for district councils, come under the second. That leaves us with the single tier councils, unitary authorities, and the metropolitan boroughs – these are the councils destined to be the dominant model for local government in the coming years.

Here it is difficult to give a sweeping prediction. First of all, because in some of them only a third of seats are up for elections. Secondly, because while most were last contested in 2016 – and thus will be challenging for Labour to improve upon – some are from 2017, so it would be hard for Labour to do any worse.

Demographic change adds to the uncertainty. Trafford is traditionally regarded as an important battleground between Labour and the Conservatives. Yet there is quite a substantial Labour lead there at present – 36 Labour councillors to 20 for the Conservatives. With only third of councillors up for election, the scope for dramatic change is limited. As the seats were last contested in 2016 there should be scope for Conservative gains. Trafford has become more middle class but not small business owners and the sort of middle class voter inclined to back the Tories. Instead, they are the secretariat middle class – university researchers, public sector administrators, and so forth – a category more likely to have socialist allegiances.

Brighter prospects for the Conservatives may be found in Dudley. Labour and the Conservatives have 36 seats each. Only a third of seats are being contested – and there are a couple of independents. But given this was last contested in 2016 it would be disappointing if the Conservatives did not gain overall control. Walsall Council is already narrowly in Conservative hands – the expectation will be to see the majority increased.

Plymouth may be tricky for the Conservatives due to local splits. The dispute, which has resulted in some councillors elected as Conservatives now sitting as independents, seems to concern speed limits. Labour hold a narrow lead on the Council at present and a third of the seats are up for election. They were last contested in 2016 – which should have given the Conservatives an opportunity. The close of nominations on April 8th may give a sense of the consequences of the infighting in terms of independent candidates standing.

Due to the extraordinary General Elections results in December 2019, we have some local authorities with Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. How effective have these new Conservative MPs been at building up a campaigning machine and talent spotting good council candidates? The “red wall” has already been breached. Will it now be demolished? Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“The 2017 local elections saw the Labour bastion Northumberland fall. Labour also lost a large number of seats in Durham – mostly to independents. Both those councils have all their councillors up for election again. So the test for Labour will be whether they can recover or whether the trend from the General election is confirmed. 

“Sheffield may be difficult for Labour. In some places, they will be worried about the Green Party and the Lib Dems. But we also have wards in Sheffield, on the north western fringe, with a Conservative MP – Miriam Cates the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. So could we see the first Conservative councillors in Sheffield for a long time?

“Sandwell has Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. Rotherham has no Conservative councillors but part of it is represented by Alexander Stafford the MP for Rother Valley. Doncaster does already have a small number of Conservative councillors. Will they have more given that there is now Nick Fletcher as the Conservative MP for Don Valley?”

“The greatest interest will be in Black Country and South Yorkshire. These are places that would have be ignored in previous local elections due to being so monolithically Labour.”

Milton Keynes will be worth looking out for, as it is pretty evenly divided between the Conservatives, Labour, and the Lib Dems. Elsewhere the Lib Dems start from a generally weak position. They will be making an effort in Wokingham where they have made some quiet progress in the past.

One caveat to all the elections covered this week. I have tried to look at the state of the parties in current opinion polls as a clue to how they might perform, relative to the actual votes cast in the local elections of four and five years ago. But in local elections older people are more likely to vote. The Conservatives already had a big lead among older voters in 2016 and 2017. But there has been some polling suggesting that the Conservatives relative advantage in that group compared to the population generally has increased. That may be part of a continuing trend. Or it may be that the “vaccination bounce” has a greater impact among the old. It might give the Conservatives a bit of an extra edge – especially in places like Cornwall with a significant number of retired people.

Next week I will consider some of high profile contests for directly elected Mayors.

James Frayne: Six ways of boosting local pride and identity

8 Dec

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In an excellent recent blog, my colleague Andy Westwood of Manchester University called on the Government to pursue a local identity strategy.

In it, he wrote: “Buying or subsidising a hotel, pier or football club might not sit easily with notions of the role of government, nor a faith in competition rules. It goes against the grain of markets, state aid and traditional Conservative views of the state. There are lots of arguments about why we shouldn’t attempt such an approach. But if we really want to care about ‘place’ and identity then we should put these objections aside.”

He is right. Local identity should be a defining part of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda. While new investment in infrastructure and education and skills are ultimately what’s needed to improve post-industrial areas, local people will have to wait many years to reap the benefits of such policy decisions.

But the Government can do a lot in a short space of time to improve towns and cities by thinking about things through the prism of local identity. A key question should be: how do we make these towns nicer places to live? A simple question – but one which would drive different policy answers to simply asking how we deliver more jobs.

Here is what focus groups tell you people in post-industrial areas want to see. They say their towns and cities were thriving until the late 1990s, but have been in increasingly rapid decline ever since. Shops have closed on once-busy high streets, bustling markets are a distant memory, local businesses have moved out, once-great festivals have been downgraded or ceased altogether, community pubs have shut, low-level anti-social behaviour (like open drug use) has risen massively, attractive local focal points such as war memorials have been vandalised.

While the sense of malaise in these towns and cities is unmistakable, equally unmistakable is the sense of local pride people have for the places they live in. People are angry about the state of their towns because they love them. This is what the Government should be looking to tap into.

This can sound a bit vague and woolly, but it doesn’t have to be so. For a start, it’s important to acknowledge that England really is unusual in the intensity of very local identity. In a tiny country, small towns, often separated by just a few miles, think of themselves as being entirely different from their near-neighbours – and indeed they often sound completely different.

Think of the huge differences between, say, Mansfield and Rotherham. 25 miles apart and on paper quite similar, but people who consider themselves to be totally different; and remarkably, who sound totally different despite being separated by a car journey of half an hour.

Nor does renewing local identity all have to be a 30-year project. Some parts of such a project, to be clear, does: if you are going to make devolution work, revive major civic institutions and change the role of universities in their place – as well as build major infrastructure – you won’t see the results overnight. But there’s also a lot that can be done in four years, with tangible results. Here are some illustrative examples of things that a combination of national and local Government might do:

  • Keep the streets clean and safe. As well as generally increasing the visible police presence, pay for security guards to walk through the high street during the hours that the shops are open, and deploy others to walk through local parks.
  • Bring back the events. Everywhere I go, people have a local event – a carnival, a fireworks display, a special annual market – that used to bring people together and that disappeared in the last few years. The Government should help bring them back.
  • For that matter, there should be incentives to restore a local market day. Many towns still have the basic infrastructure – and certainly the space – to bring back the sorts of large markets that existed on Saturday mornings and which brought huge commerce to small towns. This basic infrastructure should be repaired or rebuilt.
  • Some transport takes decades to deliver, but regular, inexpensive buses don’t.
  • Invest in those institutions that are delivering leisure services to the local community. Long Eaton United is an example of a thriving local institution of the kind I’m thinking of. Its training facilities – partly grant-funded – are used to ensure that huge numbers of teams – for men, women, boys and girls – are all able to play. There are huge numbers of similar clubs across the country who could play a similarly important role locally.
  • Support libraries and local museums. Cultural infrastructure needs funding and supporting.

As we deliver the levelling up funds and the towns funds, plus the safer streets money, and all of the plethora of pots the government has (very sensibly) been putting into these kinds of efforts, government needs to make sure it doesn’t just go on long-term infrastructure like broadband, or local economic zones.

Important though these are, the Government needs to ensure they’re making a tangible and visible difference to towns. Without that, no one will give it permission to do longer term work – and, to be honest, this is what people care about most.

James Frayne: Perhaps the Conservatives should simply revert to being southern and posh

10 Nov

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In my twenties, I took a serious interest in US politics and campaigns, naively coming to think of the UK and US as culturally similar. It’s an easy mistake: a shared history; mutual respect for each other’s institutions; similar attitudes to the free market, individual rights and the rule of law; overlapping tastes in popular culture.

But it’s a mistake nonetheless. When I lived and worked in Washington DC and New York City for a couple of years – theoretically culturally familiar places – I came to realise how utterly foreign the US is. While I love the US and believe they’re our closest ally, I’m culturally European. I’m now firmly of the view those people seeking to apply political and electoral lessons from the US to the UK are usually wasting their time.

As Nick Timothy pointed out yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that Boris Johnson’s conservatism is damaged by Donald Trump’s defeat is ludicrous – the two are cut from different cloth, despite persistent but silly commentary linking “Brexit and Trump”.

So I stress: those looking to learn lessons from the US are mostly wasting their time. But one important consideration does arise for British Conservatives.

This is the electoral danger of letting down the new working class voters who have flocked to Trump’s GOP and the Conservative Party respectively.

In the US, these voters are often called Reagan Democrats or sometimes Springsteen Democrats; in the UK, we tend to call them the “traditional working class”; either way, they’re the working class of industrial and post industrial areas. While their similarities stretch only so far, given the differing nature of British and American labour markets and industrial history, the theme of working class disappointment is relevant.

We shouldn’t over-simplify: there were many reasons why Trump won in 2016; aggressive cultural conservatism was only one of them. But Trump partly carried so-called “rust-belt” states by promising to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. In short, he pledged to bring back dignity to hard-up places. The fact that this hasn’t happened – despite a surge in the national economy – dented his re-election chances.

A reality check: it doesn’t appear that Joe Biden truly surged amongst working class voters, nor did Trump collapse. But they do appear to have shifted markedly away from him. Given his narrow lead amongst the working class – and indeed his narrow lead in rust-belt states, full stop – this shift was enough to cause serious electoral problems.

British Conservatives face a similar problem. No, they didn’t make the same sorts of promises to the traditional working class in 2019; they didn’t promise the equivalent of, say, bringing back coal and steel to the North of England.

But while “getting Brexit done” was the most important part of their campaign last December, “levelling up” has become the party’s central public narrative (Covid aside) ever since; it runs through almost all of their policy communications. Their promises to the working class are far less outlandish than Trump’s, but they’re arguably more defined by their promises because they’ve talked of little else.

Trump’s winning coalition was large, but it was shallow, because of its reliance on new voters with no history of voting Republican. The same is true here. The Conservatives’ 80 seat majority looks massive, but it’s also precarious because again it’s built on new voters with few loyalties.

While working class people will cut the Conservatives slack because of Covid, they’ll soon be asking what progress the Government has made for them. They will certainly not accept the opposite of “levelling up” – the further decline of their towns and cities (which is already happening).

Just like those long-term Democrats who asked whether shifting their votes to their historical economic and moral opponents was worth it after all, so those traditional working class Labour voters from the Midlands, North and the Coast will pose the same sort of question. They’ll ask whether the Conservatives were all talk. And as I’ve written before, Keir Starmer is a very different proposition for the working class than Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s reported today that Rishi Sunak has promised Northern MPs more resources and more attention in the post-Covid period, largely, apparently, in the form of new infrastructure spending. This is welcome. (Though what about other areas – not least the Midlands and the coast?)

But time isn’t on their side, and the task is huge. Unless they can offer meaningful social and economic progress in such places as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Rotherham and Oldham, they will be out. Yes, they’ll be able to blame Covid-19 – but so what?

In fact, such little progress is being made, with time rapidly running out, it will soon be time to consider whether the Conservatives should junk their presumed working class strategy and focus once again on the affluent South. And it’s possible that the party should indeed take the easy route, follow its heart, and go back to being Southern and posh; yes, I’m serious.

Where should the Conservatives focus? Infrastructure matters. Ultimately, however, improving the economy outside the prosperous South East will require radically improving education and skills at all levels – seeking to build new businesses and industries from this new base of skilled workers. But you’re talking of two or three Parliaments to see the fruits of any such decisions made now. The Conservatives don’t have that luxury.

Rapid progress will depend on being able to show town centres – and specifically high streets – have improved. This doesn’t just mean defending commerce; it means making town centres safer and more attractive and, crucially, fostering local pride. The Party should be throwing itself into this task. A useful immediate start to focus minds: use all those screens in the Cabinet Office to display figures from a Towns Dashboard.

James Frayne: Big tax rises would make Tory campaigning impossible – in Red Wall seats as well as traditionally blue ones

1 Sep

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In my last column, I suggested that the best hope for the Conservatives in building an effective campaign infrastructure in newly-won Northern and Midlands seats was by developing a new business-led coalition in these places.

Many of these towns and small cities have no activist networks of any description, and new voters come from families that openly despised the Tories a generation ago. Practically the only truly culturally Conservative people here – in the North East, the far North West and South Yorkshire – are businesspeople. Businesspeople are relatively large in number and are trusted by their local communities; they would be a perfect launchpad for a new Conservative Party.

It’s early days, of course, and details are yet to emerge, but news of a major assault on British businesses via higher taxes would make such a campaign totally impossible to run. It would be a massive set back to Conservative plans to become a regional party.

If reports are to be believed, amongst other things, the Treasury is considering significantly raising Corporation Tax, as well as Capital Gains Tax (CGT) and taxes on pension payments.

“Corporation Tax” is badly named; it’s a tax on pretty much any significant business, not on “corporations” – but, while larger businesses have both the resources and the endless budget lines to be able to minimise profit and keep corporation tax bills down, SMEs just have to lump it.

And increases in CGT and pension payments will put fear into small businesses, because they ultimately allow business owners to take a lower income now in the hope and expectation of being able to enjoy pay-offs in the future – with their currently lower income supporting their ability to employ others.

All of this would be a bad idea politically at the best of times. But doing it now, just when businesses have been struggling very badly, would be unbelievably risky. It’s not just high street retailers that have bit badly hit; vast numbers of firms have been hit either directly by the logistical difficulties of running a business while social distancing is required, or by a collapse in the confidence of their customers, or both.

New, higher taxes would make it harder for businesses to earn a living, and they would also make redundancies more likely and the scrapping of recruitment plans much more likely. Many businesses will be looking to develop a decent financial cushion over the next year or two – with at least six months’ operating costs in the bank – having been scarred by how close they came during lockdown to oblivion.

They would not be able to generate such a cushion with higher taxes on their profits. (Some businesses are also complaining that this comes on top of Brexit – something else that they would sooner not manage).

Aren’t these businesspeople effectively locked-in to the Conservative Party? Where would businesses go to vote? It’s true to say there are many, many businesspeople across the Midlands and North that would be very unlikely to vote Labour – on the basis the Conservatives would pretty much always be better for them.

But we’re not talking about simply securing their votes for future elections; we’re talking about trying to energise businesses so that they became local recruiters, fundraisers and campaigners for the Party in places where there are no activists. They simply won’t do this if the Conservatives turn them over. Again, if the businesspeople of Rotherham, Doncaster, Barrow, Workington, Bishop Auckland and so on aren’t going to create a new Conservative campaign network, who on earth is going to do it?

While major tax rises on business would make the growth of new regional Conservative Party much more difficult, I strongly doubt it would retain any medium-term popularity with the public either. Public opinion polls always lag behind business polls – and these are showing extreme concern about the state of the economy.

The public would catch up when reality bit and growth slowed and redundancies rose; at that point, the public would see that raising taxes on employers doesn’t help anyone. So where should the Treasury look? There are already suggestions they are being strongly encouraged to look at spending cuts first; only when they have exhausted what’s reasonable morally, economically and politically should they turn towards tax rises.